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The end of the Cold War brought the end of the United States’ ability to use its power to control much of the world. But it is only now, writes Mideast columnist Lee Smith today in Tablet Magazine, that the U.S. public is finally being brought to grips by that fact, and they are getting no help from the feckless politicians in both parties.

Lax Americana

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It wasn’t the end of the Cold War that created the idea of an America that doesn’t pursue its own interests. Domestic disdain for American exercises of power in the furtherance of its own interests dates back to the 1960s New Left, and was a fairly mainstream left-wing sentiment through the entire latter half of the Cold War. The era of liberal internationalism–roughly from 1945-1965–was actually a brief, anomalous interlude, sandwiched between the eras of conservative establishment isolationism and liberal anti-Americanism.

The underlying constant is that elites in powerful countries are almost always anti-nationalist in temperament. (Think, for example, of the British elite of the 1930s, who disdained patriotism and favored appeasement.) In weak countries, nationalism allows insecure elites to defend their status from external threats to it. In strong countries, however, confident elites risk little by casting themselves as cosmopolitan internationalists–even at the expense of their own homelands’ interests.

Conversely, nationalism in powerful countries tends to be a populist sentiment, embodying the desire of otherwise low-status people to raise their self-image by association with national strength and power. Of course, this lower-class element only intensifies the disgust of the ruling elites at displays of nationalist fervor–or of national power.

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